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The natural desire for families to do things together makes it unsurprising that many often choose to learn together, too. Each year, Saint Leo serves as the choice university for myriad families. There are generations who have studied here and others who have gone to school together at the same time.

In this story, we profile just some of Saint Leo’s family connections.

Family overcomes obstacles to achieve education goals

Family plays a pivotal role in the lives of Mercy and Luis Figueroa, of Spring Hill, FL. The couple juggled military deployments, work, family commitments, and studying while earning their degrees at Saint Leo.

“My story starts rough, but ends in the American dream,” Mercy said.

Mercy and Luis in military
Mercy and Luis Figueroa served in the U.S. Army.

Mercy was born in Havana, Cuba, where her father was held as a political prisoner. Helped by the Catholic Church, her family made their way first to Spain and then to New York, leaving Cuba when Mercy was a toddler.

“The Catholic Church has been involved in my whole life,” she said. “It’s pretty awesome I got to go to Saint Leo.”

She grew up in Brooklyn while Luis grew up in the Bronx. “I took a long train ride to find a boyfriend,” she said. “He was a tall football player with a lot of hair, but I destroyed all the hair!”

Luis joined the U.S. Army first and then encouraged Mercy to get involved. She served in the Army for four years until her daughter Gabby was born prematurely at 24 weeks with cerebral palsy and other health issues.

“She decided as much as she loved the military, she loved her daughter more,” Luis said, and Mercy left the Army to care for Gabby.

Mercy transitioned from active duty military to being a supportive military spouse. Luis, a staff sergeant, left active duty in October 2014, and retired from the military this summer. He was often deployed, and Mercy took care not only of Gabby, but also sons Isaac, who is a junior at Saint Leo, and Connor, a high school senior. “We adopted Connor from the foster care system,” Mercy said.

Luis was stationed in Fort Lewis, WA, and while deployed in Iraq, he read about Saint Leo. “It piqued my interest,” he said. “Then I came down here and realized the campus was close [to the family home in Spring Hill].” In 2011, he began his first semester at Saint Leo, but again was deployed on a high-priority mission and had to take a break. But in fall 2014, he started again and never turned back.

Mercy tried to go to college “a million times,” she said. “Once I got Gabby medically stable, I started.” Luis encouraged her to join him at Saint Leo, and she earned her associate degree in 2016.

The university felt like home. “Once I heard about Saint Leo’s history, the diversity and inclusion, at a time when they didn’t have to accept other races, cultures, that is what made me love it,” Mercy said. “There are people from everywhere at Saint Leo. It is such a great place.”

Mercy and Luis looking at each other_LOcopy22
Mercy and Luis Figueroa enjoy a moment during their commencement ceremony in 2017, where Mercy was the student speaker.

The Figueroas not only have son Isaac studying at Saint Leo, but Mercy’s sister, Heavenly Aguilar, graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice-criminalistics at the Tampa commencement ceremony on May 31. She now is pursuing a master’s degree.

Mercy graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice-criminalistics, while Luis also graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration-technology management.

For Mercy, what’s next is pursuing a law degree at the University of Mississippi School of Law, while Luis will complete his MBA at Saint Leo in December.

A family finds their home at Saint Leo

The U.S. Air Force brought the Blackman family to Florida, but Saint Leo University provided a home away from home for them. For Derrick and Kimberly Blackman and their son Elijah, Saint Leo offered the opportunity to study together, lean on each other, and cheer for each other—in the classroom and on the basketball court.

The family moved to Tampa from Colorado in 2000 when Derrick Blackman was transferred to MacDill Air Force Base. While on active duty with the Air Force, Derrick took a class at Saint Leo and enjoyed it. From there, it was on to pursuing a degree.

Derrick graduated from Saint Leo in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in religion. Next up was Elijah, who enrolled after Saint Leo representatives visited Wesley Chapel (FL) High School during his senior year there. It took a little while longer for Kimberly. “About two years later, my husband encouraged me to enroll,” she said. “He said, ‘You’ve already got your associate degree, and Saint Leo is an awesome institution for getting a quality education.’ And it was great! I’m so grateful.”

Elijah distributing ashes2
Elijah Blackman served as a University Ministry Mentor and distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Not only did Derrick encourage Kimberly, but he also pursued a master’s degree in theology. In 2017, the Blackmans graduated with Kimberly and Elijah receiving their diplomas together at the Saint Leo WorldWide commencement. Derrick received his master’s degree the next day during the morning graduate program commencement, where he also performed the national anthem.

“It was a great honor and privilege to be able to graduate the same year,” Derrick said. “It was even greater for me as husband and father to witness both my wife and son graduate from [Saint Leo] at the same time. The experience was extremely humbling.”

Now, Derrick teaches at Saint Leo as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology.

Kimberly graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and now is working toward a master’s in human services administration at Saint Leo.

Kimberly and Elijah Blackman
Mother and son, Kimberly and Elijah Blackman, received their degrees together at the Saint Leo WorldWide commencement in 2017.

Elijah, who played basketball for the Lions and served as a University Ministry Mentor, earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in sport business. After completing an internship at the University of South Carolina, he now is a graduate assistant for sports strength and conditioning at the University of Arkansas.

Graduating from Saint Leo with his parents made an impression on Elijah. “I thought it was incredible to be able to sit next to my mom during graduation and see my dad walk across the very same stage less than 24 hours later,” he said. “Graduating at the same time as your parents doesn’t happen too often.”

Derrick and Kimberly’s other son, Donovan, graduated from aviation school in 2015 and is working in Arizona. And while they tried to persuade daughter Kandice to attend Saint Leo, she did not want to attend college with her parents and brother. She is enrolled Trinity College of Florida in New Port Richey.

Twin brothers choose same major and graduate together

Family Friendly theme Igbonagwam family2Two recent grads from the Class of 2018 are not only twins, but they also graduated with the same major and held equivalent jobs as residence hall advisors. In another family connection, they are the sons of Sandy and Dr. Okey Igbonagwam, a Saint Leo assistant professor of computer information systems in Virginia.

As an employee, Igbonagwam is eligible for the university’s tuition remission benefit, which is a big plus in helping families pay for college. While the financial benefit was certainly a factor in the decision, Igbonagwam said his sons were also drawn to Saint Leo by the appeal of University Campus. “First impressions matter,” according to Chidozie and Chigozie. They also liked the academics, and both have wanted to be doctors since they were small. That made the biology major with a specialization in biomedical and health sciences a natural fit. The major is offered only at University Campus.

So, the twins came to Florida and got involved with the Pre-Medical Club, the student-run fundraisers for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and research projects with faculty mentors. Since graduation, both have taken the Medical College Admission Test and are hoping to be admitted to medical school.

Despite deferring their dreams, couple graduates together

DSC_9028When Sherryl Johnson-Tandy and her husband Erik Tandy walked across the commencement stage together on the evening of Friday, April 27, it was a little out of the ordinary. Sherryl, a corporal in the Pasco County (FL) Sheriff’s Office, completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice. So she was grouped with the other adult learners receiving undergraduate degrees in the evening.

Her husband Erik was also graduating with a Saint Leo degree, but his was the Master of Business Administration. The MBA grads are a big group, and are scheduled for the Saturday morning ceremony of commencement weekend, along with those who have attained graduate degrees in other disciplines. But Erik was switched to Friday night at his request so that he and Sherryl could walk across the stage together to celebrate their joint accomplishment.

It was no easy road for the two. They had long wanted to reach these educational goals, but raised a family, so they waited for everyone to be grown and out of the house. It did not quite work out that way. As they went to school, and worked, circumstances required that they also tend often to three grandchildren, ages 5, 8, and 9.

Sherryl has a memory of both the adults studying at night, and then Erik “waking me up from sleeping on my computer.” And she often did the same for him. When their finals were over, she said, it was a blessing to don their robes and receive their diplomas together.

Being a parent is a tough job, but being a single mom taking college classes is even tougher. Yesenia Shaffer ’14, age 26, was one of those moms who juggled and multi-tasked, finally earning her bachelor’s degree in social work in Spring 2014.

It took lots of planning,” Shaffer remembers. “I knew I had to limit how long I was gone from my son.”

Her son, Gavin-Anthony, now 4, was 2 when Shaffer began taking courses toward her bachelor’s degree. Prior to that, she earned her Associate of Arts degree from Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey, FL (now Pasco-Hernando State College, PHSC).

Gavin-Anthony was foremost in Shaffer’s mind as she began her education journey. “When I first went to school, I didn’t have him in day care,” she says. “So I went to night school. As I went through school, I got a little smarter, and I gained more strength to let go a little bit of my son. I worked nights at the Generations Christian Church in Trinity so I could afford small things, and my son was always with me when I worked in the day care area. I didn’t take on anything where I couldn’t take care of him. I was figuring out what was best for him.”

In addition to getting a college degree, Shaffer also wanted to become a pilot. When she first started her junior year at the Adult Education Center at the New Port Richey Office-PHSC, she only worked nights so that her son could accompany her. “My last semester, I got a job at the flight school and it was two hours both ways in traffic,” she recalls.

Dr. Marguerite McInnis, department chair of social work at Saint Leo, was impressed that her student wanted to be a pilot. “At first she was living in New Port Richey and commuting to Lakeland,” Dr. McInnis says. “And she still did her field placement. I was just amazed at everything she was handling. She maintained a positive attitude, but she was tired. She was juggling everything for her child’s future and for her future.”

Shaffer pursued a bachelor’s degree in social work from Saint Leo’s Adult Education Center at PHSC after not knowing what she wanted to study. It all became clear when she took her first human services class. “During the class, our teacher talked about if you wanted to be a counselor, you should get a social work degree rather than psychology,” Shaffer explains. “I had taken psychology, nursing, and education classes; I actually have my massage therapy license. I always enjoyed helping people, but didn’t know what way was going to be my way.”

Her own life mirrored what she was studying. “I happened to be in every situation,” she says. “I’m a young, Hispanic single mother, recently divorced, trying to go back to school, [with a] home that I can barely pay the mortgage for, and supporting a son.”

After some soul searching, she realized she wanted to help other people by majoring in social work. “I felt so empowered,” she says. “I was at the lowest time in my life, but I felt like I could build myself up to be anything. I had a clean slate. Everyone was so encouraging. I felt strong.”

Shaffer chose Saint Leo because family members and friends had studied at the university. “I grew up right off Old St. Joe Road and did a summer camp at Saint Leo,” she says.” I always knew it was really a great university. It was convenient. It had everything. And I could afford it. It fit all my requirements.”

Shaffer wants to combine flying with humanitarian interests. “I love, love, love to help people and fly and get to places that don’t have a lot of people coming by to help,” Shaffer explains. One of her future goals is to fly to the Caribbean islands and bring supplies. “I want to help people, meeting them where they are and helping them how I can.”

Now she is director of sales and marketing at Kingsky Flight Academy in Lakeland, a five-minute drive from her home. Gavin-Anthony attends a day care at the airfield and is proud of his mother. “He’s so vocal about it,” Shaffer said. “Maybe it comes from being my kid! He’s very verbal—every emotion is expressed. He’s always telling me how he is feeling. He knows that Mommy has worked hard.”

Animated, effervescent, driven—all are adjectives that describe Saint Leo University alumna and instructor Keisha Armistead.

Armistead is an adjunct faculty member and a virtual curriculum instructor at the Fort Eustis (VA) Education Office. She teaches compensation, organizational training and development, risk management, recruitment, selection and placement, business principles of management, and human resources management in the evening while managing a demanding career at NASA.

In federal service at NASA for 25 years, she is lead management and program analyst for the Advance Composites Program at the NASA Langley Research Center, which specializes in government aeronautics, in Hampton, VA. “I’ve supported multiple launches and research and development projects,” Armistead says. “And I share a lot of that project management experience with the students. I keep them enthusiastic about becoming future leaders.”

As the “Friday night teacher” at Fort Eustis, Armistead said she knew she had to keep the students excited about being in a classroom and learning online. “I try to keep them involved,” Armistead explains. “I say, ‘I’d love to have a hot date, but now we are here to focus on our education.’ I understand where they’re coming from. I had to do it, too.”

Keisha Armistead's pets Sprocket and Klutchiz

On occasion, her furry friends, two Maltese named Sprocket and Klutchiz, wander into view on camera while she is teaching. “They break the ice with the students,” she comments. “We always have pet lovers in our virtual room and share during first night introductions.”

The dogs get their unique monikers from Armistead’s love of motorcycles. She formerly owned a motorcycle shop and drag-raced a modified Suzuki Hayabusa 1300 motorcycle. A YouTube video of her racing dubs her “Da Professa.”

Keisha Armistead racing a modified Suzuki

The need for speed translates into her teaching as she focuses students on being efficient and effective. “It can be difficult,” she says of the mainly adult learners she teaches. “Many of my students still have to get dinner on the table before 5:30 while taking classes. I teach about app [for cellphones], shopping online.”

Armistead strives to keep a relaxed atmosphere for her online students while keeping them focused. “Even when we’re online, you have to focus on what you’re doing,” she says. “Students are trying to do laundry or other things at home hoping I don’t call their name. But I will! I talk fast!”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in management in 1999 from Saint Leo and her master’s degree in human resource management from Troy State University. In addition, she has completed some coursework in applied management and decision sciences from Walden University. Prior to studying at Saint Leo, she earned two associate degrees from Thomas Nelson Community College in Newport News, VA.

“I motivate my students,” Armistead says. “You should never stop learning. Keep taking classes. But not just through academia. Read, share your experiences with others, and formulate your legacy. Education is an ongoing process. It’s something everyone should continue.”

Armistead returned to teach at Saint Leo because she enjoyed the support she received while a student. “I really liked the fact that Saint Leo educators treated me like an adult. They treat you like family. If I had any difficulties, they reached out to do all they could to help me achieve my educational goals. It is a welcoming environment, and it worked.”

For her students, Armistead tries to relate learning objectives to issues going on in the workplace, home, or private lives of her students.

“The same techniques we are studying to use at work, we can do at home,” she explains. “It’s managing both your home and work life. In my organizational training and development class recently, I asked, ‘Who is responsible for your career?’ Some students said, ‘My boss.’ I said, ‘No, bosses are responsible for your work performance. They don’t care about you.’ You are responsible for your life and career. If you’re not happy, only one person has the real power to change it . . . you.”

Some people are known for bringing work home, but Wayn MacKay instead brings his work to the classroom at Saint Leo University’s Fort Eustis (VA) office.

MacKay earned his undergraduate degree in criminal justice with a specialization in homeland security in 2012 (at Fort Eustis and online) and his master’s in criminal justice with a concentration in critical incident management in 2013 (at the Newport News office and online). He now teaches criminal justice at Fort Eustis.

“The degree I got my undergrad in has a lot to do with what I do in my day job,” MacKay explains. “I work for a police department within the federal government. I write local policies, conduct risk assessments, identify threats, develop plans to mitigate those threats, and also do some intel [intelligence work], as well as a long list of other things.”

And that’s just what he teaches current Saint Leo students. In the fall, he taught Local Response to Terrorism. He now is teaching Terrorism and is scheduled to teach Exploitable Weaknesses in Terrorism and Intro to Homeland Defense in upcoming semesters. “I’m loving it,” he says. “The students are engaged and want to learn, and I’m very proud of them.

“Saint Leo has given me the opportunity to share my experience and knowledge, and I find that to be very rewarding,” MacKay says. “I’m engaged in it during the day and then when I teach at night; I’m among a crowd of people who want to be engaged in law enforcement and terrorism issues.”

Being at Saint Leo allows MacKay to be around “likeminded folks,” he said. He enjoys teaching students who want to excel in life and often want to start a new career.

MacKay practices what he preaches and plans to make the security industry a lifelong career. He served 20 years in the Navy and in such positions as patrolman, watch commander, career counselor, military customs agent, criminal investigator, protective service supervisor, antiterrorism officer, and physical security officer.

During his tenure as a protective service agent, he provided protection for many celebrities, high-ranking military officials, members of the U.S. House and Senate, and presidential cabinet members.

He enjoys using the critical-thinking skills necessary for intelligence, anti-terrorism, and homeland defense training. “You have to develop and maintain those skills. That’s what employers look for—critical thinkers.”

MacKay uses real-life situations students may encounter to teach them proper responses. “I give them a scenario, and then we talk about how they would deal with it,” he said. “The scenarios are challenging and require the students to think about how their particular strategy may affect or not affect operational planning and execution. It’s important to be able to identify and manage multiple challenges simultaneously.”

He retired in 2009, and the following year, he enrolled at Saint Leo using benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Thinking back on his years of studying at Saint Leo, MacKay says, “There have been many professors throughout my undergrad and graduate programs who have helped to shape me as the professional I am today. I like to think of life as a buffet . . . take a little of everything you like. Almost everyone has some quality to emulate and taking a little here and there can be of great value.

“Saint Leo is an institution that provides the foundation for personal growth through the core values coupled with many different professions. For me, it’s about the core values combined with law enforcement and homeland security.”